The work of committees up at Stormont is a crucial part of the democratic jigsaw, many of them scrutinising the plans and work of Executive departments. On Tuesday I asked Alex Maskey about the role of committees in general, and then more specifically about the Social Development committee which he chairs.
After a couple of minutes of prelude looking at the context of the Assembly and Executive and the need for power sharing, Alex got into the detail of how the committees work.
He explained that his own committee’s work tends to split into three areas: benefits and welfare; housing; and tackling disadvantage. The NI Assembly website summarises its remit:
The committee was established to advise and assist the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland MLA, on matters within his responsibility as a Minister. The committee undertakes a scrutiny, policy development and consultation role with respect to the Department for Social Development and plays a key role in the consideration and development of legislation.
While there is a general rule of parity in benefits across the UK, Alex worked through an example from the previous Assembly mandate where the committee had successfully argued that differences in (secondary) statutory obligations (for local authority childcare provision) between England and NI meant that a deviation from the standard policy was necessary in NI. The committee lobbied for change.
As well as the potential to work collaboratively with the department and minister, committees can also work with each other. Minister for Social Development – Nelson McCausland – is the lead minister within the Executive for fuel poverty. Mirroring the interdepartmental working group focussed on this issue, the Committee for Social Development brought together the eight affected committees, “maximising the collaboration” by listening in clusters to around thirty relevant stakeholder organisations.
Alex Maskey is clear that he wants his committee to have influence without just going for headlines. There’s a maturity – and an intentional stepping back from the normal political brink – to his approach.
Our committee has a scrutiny role. And I’ve said to the minister, I’m not interested in fighting with you. I’m not interested in grabbing a headline because any chair could do that and some have done that. So I could grab a headline every week on some of this stuff and be head to head with the minister. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in getting something done. I want to sit back in four years time and say we did A, B, C and D, and we did out job properly.
What would success look like for the committee?
I would like to see better statistics [“outcomes”] in relation to fuel poverty … in relation to neighbourhood renewal … in relation to regeneration. I would like to see overall poverty levels lifted.
The committee will want to be convinced that the Programme for Government commitments are appropriate and will be realised.
Success for me would be if we are able to point that what the department is responsibility for doing has been done successfully. I know that’s a tall order as the department is not an island. But as part of this notion that there needs to joined-up-ness and greater collaboration …
What about the relationship between the minister and the committee? It’s clear that senior department officials are working positively with the Social Development committee. Alex and Nelson have ‘history’ from their days on Belfast City Council. But for Alex, that should be set to one side. The minister and the committee should treat each other with respect.
There’s significant agreement about social development policy in party manifestos. Alex’s message to the minister is:
“I want to maximise the 80% [they agree on] … we’ll fight over the 20%, but we’ll cooperate over the 80%.”
Our conversation finished by looking at the impact of fewer department on the workload on smaller committees.